Swedish efficiency a hit with Chinese

IKEA: The furniture chain's new outlet in Beijing is overrun by eager shoppers, some even dozing on beds and dining on the sofas.

February 05, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Exquisitely carved chairs from the Ming Dynasty bring as much as $80,000 at Sotheby's, but the most popular home-furnishing item in the Chinese capital these days may be an $8 steel floor lamp at IKEA.

Since the Swedish furniture giant opened a store here in December, IKEA's showroom has become about the hottest spot in Beijing. Each weekend, tens of thousands of people pour through the doors in what looks more like an invasion than a shopping spree.

As if wandering through an amusement park, people stretch out on the futons, climb the ladders of the loft-style beds and peer curiously at the do-it-yourself flooring. Traffic is so heavy in front of the building that customers either park on the beltway exit ramp or come by taxi.

"It's very refreshing and comfortable," says Dr. Yin Huijuan, a retired surgeon, as she looks over a blue, foldout love seat priced at about $160. "I've never seen things like this in China."

And that's the secret. In a city of cramped apartments largely filled with homogenous furniture, IKEA is a revelation. The space-saving designs, such as the loft-bed with a desk set underneath, stoke the imagination of Chinese starved for decorating ideas.

"The arrangement is very cozy and makes good use of the tiny space I have," says 23-year-old university student Fan Dongyu, admiring the layout of a modern bachelor pad. "You can have a study, a living room and a bedroom all together in one room."

Controlled chaos

IKEA's foray into northern China is a cultural exchange that melds Swedish efficiency and innovation with the enthusiasm of Chinese people and their penchant for controlled chaos.

The furniture company has 150 stores stretching from Dubai to Vancouver, but it has probably never seen shoppers quite like those in Beijing. Some nap on the beds for an hour or more at a time. Others bring their families and camp out in the sofa section where they read newspapers, drink tea from glass jars and eat biscuits.

They're "having a picnic, almost," says Gordon Gustavsson, the store manager, sounding both delighted and slightly amazed. "That's not what we're used to."

Chinese are generally quite curious, which means more work for IKEA. Shoppers routinely dismantle living-room displays -- taking clocks off the walls and lifting up frames to study the construction.

"I sometimes find people behind the curtains," examining the quality of the fabric, Gustavsson says.

Bags instead of carts

Not long after the store opened, IKEA had to hire more staff to straighten display areas on an hourly basis.

Because of the onslaught of visitors and the risk of fire, IKEA does not offer shopping carts. Instead, it provides yellow, durable plastic bags that many Beijing shoppers drag around the store behind them.

"It's convenient," says Yu Deyu, a 68-year-old retired engineer, as he drags a bag filled with his overcoat and glasses around the sofa section. "It's made for dragging."

Given the recession in much of Asia and a retail glut here, opening a 16,350-square-yard superstore with just 90 parking spaces might not seem like the best investment right now. IKEA, though, has at least two things in its favor.

In a nation where shopping can still seem like a scavenger hunt, it brings 5,000 home-related products under one roof. And as the government sells state-owned housing to its workers as part of an effort to dismantle the old socialist welfare system, it is creating an incentive for home decoration.

While many Beijingers seem enamored with IKEA, some have complaints. Shoppers accustomed to government-run department stores where salespeople often outnumber customers are frustrated by what they see as a skeleton staff. Others find the prices too high.

IKEA offers terrific deals on small products, such as 100 candles for less than $5. On the other hand, a sleeper sofa and a combination drop-leaf table and cabinets costs $727 -- more than China's annual urban per-capita income.

IKEA has frightened furniture manufacturers and retailers here, but there already are signs the domestic industry is preparing to fight back. In China, imitation isn't just the sincerest form of flattery, it's a way of life.

The culture that gave the world gunpowder and paper has become extraordinarily adept at copying everything from Hollywood films to Ralph Lauren Polo shirts. Swedish design can't be far behind.

`Ability to imitate'

"The Chinese have an excellent ability to imitate," says Jin Chengfu, as he sits at a table in one of the kitchen displays scribbling notes and refusing to say what he does for a living. Jin, who seems to know a lot about the furniture business, says those in the field see IKEA's arrival as an opportunity to design similar furniture for less.

"If the Chinese can learn and reproduce the exact designs, they will have an advantage," Jin says. "IKEA should try to make a lot of money in these few years."

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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